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Misrepresentations of Islam: Not all Muslims shun depictions of Mohammed

Paul Marshall

In the aftermath of Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons, as the Danish government and European media face death and mayhem designed to undercut freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, we should rid ourselves of certain misconceptions. One is that Islam forbids any visual portrayal of Mohammed; another is that such depictions of Mohammed are extremely unusual.

There is a strong tradition within Islam that making portraits of Mohammed is wrong, but it is by no means universal. Some, especially Shiites, believe it is legitimate. Others believe that it is legitimate to portray him when he was young, before becoming a prophet.

Despite its rulers’ current fulminations, Iran itself is full of pictures of Mohammed. While devout Shiites more often wear a pendant bearing a picture of Ali, a Companion of the Prophet central to the development of Shiism, it is not uncommon for them to wear one bearing Mohammed’s face. Depictions of the Prophet also appear on major buildings, including mosques, and even on small kiosks selling cigarettes. For believers, they are certainly a real sign of devotion, but at the same time they are an implicit subversion of the regime. Like Stalin or Saddam Hussein have done, Iran’s dictators demand that those they rule subject themselves to the idolatrous image of the Supreme Leader, whether the Ayatollah Khomeini or current Ayatollah Khamenei, by putting their stern visages in their homes, offices, and shops. In the face of this repression, a picture of the Prophet is a rebuke to those who put themselves in his place.

You can also find numerous portrayals of Mohammed in medieval Afghan, Uzbek, Ottoman, and, especially, Persian Islamic art. In some of these, especially the Ottoman ones, Mohammed’s face is hidden or blank, but there are also many detailed, and often quite exquisite, full portraits illustrating his life. The University of Edinburgh has a miniature of “Mohammed re-dedicating the Black Stone at the Kaaba,” which is taken from the Jami Al-Tawarikh, “The Universal History,” written by Rashid Al-Din and illustrated c. 1315, as well as a “Birth of the Prophet Muhammad,” taken from the Jami’ al-tavarikh, “Compendium of Chronicles,” dated c. 1314-15 (Edinburgh University Library). France’s Bibliotheque Nationale has a “Mohammed meets the prophets Ismail, Is-hak and Lot in paradise” and a “Mohammed arrives on the shores of the White Sea,” both taken from the Apocalypse of Muhammad, written in 1436 in Herat, Afghanistan.

If you don’t want to travel so far, then visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see “The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq,” a leaf from a copy of the Bustan of Sacdi, dated 1514, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, or “Muhammad’s Call to Prophecy and the First Revelation” and the “Journey of the Prophet Muhammad,” both leaves from the Majmac al-tawarikh, “Compendium of Histories,” from Herat, Afghanistan c 1425. Or you can look at them in the catalog (here and here).

Portrayals of Mohammed are also common in Western art, especially in book illustrations, especially in France. William Blake, Auguste Rodin, and Salvador Dali produced such paintings, and shocking ones at that, since they illustrate the most famous Western depiction of Mohammed, a literary one the description in Dante’s Inferno XXVIII, 19-24, of Mohammed in the 8th circle of hell, with his entrails drawn out.

There are also media depictions. Time and Newsweek have both run pictures of Mohammed in recent years, for which they faced some demonstrations and had issues banned in some countries, but nothing on the scale of the Jyllands-Posten attacks. On July 4, 2001, South Park aired an episode, “Super Best Friends“, depicting Mohammed, along with other founders of major religions, as super heroes who join forces to fight evil.

Further afield, many Shriners’ halls have such pictures, and, perhaps of most interest to Americans, the north frieze on the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., features a bas-relief where Mohammed is shown as a law-giver. He holds a book and a scimitar and stands between Charlemagne and Justinian, and along the way from Hugo Grotius, William Blackstone, and John Marshall (pdf of Supreme Court friezes here). (By the way, Michael Newdow, who had challenged the constitutionality of the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance also launched a lawsuit against the constitutionality of the friezes.)

Some media outlets, such as the Boston Globe and CNN, have hesitated to show the cartoons since they do in fact offend Muslims, while the BBC has apologized for the distant image it did show. Of course, these outlets are outstandingly hypocritical since, in the past, they have shown no qualms about displaying images offensive to Christians and others. But, hypocrisy aside, their current position is defensible. In itself, it is good not to offend others’ religious beliefs.

The situation we now face is a grave one. Remember that Jyllands-Posten first ran the cartoons to accompany an article asking “Do we still have press freedom?” after Danish children’s writer, Kåre Bluitgen, could not find an illustrator for a book on Mohammed of the type published countless times previously in the West. Authoritarian regimes such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Libya, as well as radical Islamists, are currently seeking by violence to impose their press restrictions on the rest of the world. The way the West responds will give our answer to Jyllands-Posten’s question.

If these countries succeed in exporting their repression on this issue, what will be the next step? Will governments be attacked if their media give internet links to cartoons of Mohammed, so that those who wish can see them? Will South Park be censored for the sake of international amity? Will there be attacks on publications featuring more positive images of Mohammed? Will U.S. embassies suffer violence if the Met continues to allow images of Mohammed in their catalog online? Will the Met be attacked if it shows those paintings? If Americans overseas are threatened or held hostage until the friezes on the Supreme Court are sandblasted, what will we do?

These questions sound outlandish even as I write them, but they are very real, they are not new, and they do follow an inexorable logic. The Danish cartoonists now live in hiding for fear of their lives, even as the threats against Salman Rushdie have been renewed. After Dutch director Theo Van Gogh was murdered for his documentary on women in Islam, other directors have backed off similar proposals. The Church of San Petronio, in Bologna, has an illustration of Mohammed in hell, drawing on Dante’s description. In August 2002, Italian police arrested one Italian and four Moroccans after reports that an al Qaeda linked network was planning to bomb the church.

If we yield now to pressures for censorship, Islamists and authoritarian regimes overseas will have learned that by undercutting our trade, attacking our embassies, and threatening our citizens, they can control our press, just as they do their own, and they will take those lessons to heart.

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